First Generation of Transgender Rabbis Claims Place at Bimah

Pushing Conversation on Gender in Jewish Community

‘Who Am I?’: Elliot Kukla was the first out transgender rabbi to be ordained by the Reform movement in 2006. He is a chaplain at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.
Nic Coury
‘Who Am I?’: Elliot Kukla was the first out transgender rabbi to be ordained by the Reform movement in 2006. He is a chaplain at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published July 15, 2013, issue of July 19, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When it comes to the acceptance of transgender Jews, the American Jewish community is itself in a moment of transition.

In 2008, Joy Ladin became the public face of transgender Judaism when she transitioned from male to female after receiving tenure at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. Five years later, there are at least six transgender rabbis and rabbis-in-training across the United States. Both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have programs on transgender inclusion at synagogues and in seminaries.

Still, the tiny community of transgender Jews and their advocates say that the mainstream Jewish world has been slow to reach out to them. Even as non-Orthodox Judaism has embraced lesbians and gay men, transgender individuals pose a unique challenge to an ancient faith built on strict gender roles.

“Parents who are perfectly liberal in most other respects don’t necessarily want a trans person to be their kid’s bar or bat mitzvah tutor or teach the teen youth group or to be hired as a rabbi,” said Rabbi Jacob Staub, a professor at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College who co-founded a student and faculty group on transgender issues. “Inclusion will take time.”

READ: Next Generation of Rabbis Ties Practice and Gender Switch

Questions of transgender inclusion become even more complex when Jewish law comes into play. In 2003, the Conservative movement deemed sexual reassignment surgery an essential component of gender transition. But many trans people never receive surgery, and so their transitions go unrecognized by the movement.

Rabbi Leonard Sharzer, a bioethicist at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has written a Jewish legal opinion that counters the Conservative ruling, saying that Jewish law should consider trans Jews according to the gender they identify with regardless of surgical status. He plans to submit his opinion to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the Conservative movement’s law-making body.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis believe that sex reassignment surgery does not change one’s gender. Yet some Orthodox trans folk attend synagogue, leading quiet, worshipful lives.

Times of change often yield the most compelling stories. The Forward’s series on the lives of transgender Jews looks at how trans people are both creating their own communities and building on the success of the gay and lesbian rights movement to gain recognition in the Jewish mainstream.

Over the next two days, the Forward will publish profiles of six transgender rabbis and rabbis-in-training. Though it remains to be seen whether this small cohort will gain long-term employment as Jewish leaders, these individuals have become sought-after speakers and panelists in synagogues and community centers. Many of them espouse radical ideas about gender, pushing their respective Jewish communities to see it as a mutable part of identity rather than a characteristic fixed from birth. All six have contributed to a growing body of ritual that aims to mark gender transition as a holy event in the life of a Jewish person.

First off are Elliott Kukla and Reuben Zellman, the first transgender rabbis ordained by the Reform movement in 2006 and 2010, respectively. And Emily Aviva Kapor, a transgender female rabbi. Check back tomorrow for more profiles.

Reuben Zellman’s Classmates Were ‘Unfailingly Supportive’

For Elliot Kukla, Gender Transition and Ordination Came Together

Emily Aviva Kapor: Creating a Jewish Community for Trans Women


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.